Albums Worth Listening to: Electric Light Orchestra, New World Record

27 Jan

This was an album that was huge at the time (1976) that I don’t hear many people talking about anymore.  Pity really, because this album is one of the prime examples of where an album is more than the sum of the songs that make it up.  I can imagine this album wandering through the outer fringes of space, wandering across the radio ether, and somehow making sense.    It just sounds like something transmitted from a satellite.

We start out with Tightrope–A symphonic theme (that continues on and off through the whole record) introduces a sort of mid-tempo tune about falling off a tightrope and wanting someone to through him down a line.  The tune being interrupted at several points by the orchestra making sounds like toppling off a tightrope.  He says he’s saved at the end.

Then we segue into Telephone Line, a song that deserves the title “prettiest song this side of heaven.”  Lynne’s voice sounds pure, and the symphony arpeggios behind him giving the impression of a night full of stars, and the soft crooning of “oh oh Telephone line, give me some time, I’m living in twilight” just floating over it all, like someone who has just learned how to fly.

“Rockaria” sounds pretty stupid, teaching an opera singer how to rock n roll, but it somehow fits into the space jukebox theme we’ve wandered around, a blues song with an opera singer and an orchestra behind it.   Lynn has a good time with it, and he gives a knowing wink to the audience, it’s kind of like a Doctor Who episode that’s set in the past, the cheesiness is somehow part of it so it’s not a problem.

We end the first half with Mission (A New World Record).  A space song that starts with the sounds of ambulances–basically an alien has been sent to earth to watch things.  “On a dirty worn-out sidewalk, sits a mother with a baby, In her vale of tears she sees no rainbow and someone’s singing from a window In the mission of the sacred heart.”  Considering that this is the title track, it kind of explains the sad atmosphere, beautiful moodiness, and emphasis on space and the sky through this whole album.

“So Fine” opens up the next bit, a sort of Beach Boys influenced happy romp of a song–the singer talking about how he wants things, a well done light-weight pop song, until in the middle we get this bridge which sounds like a microwave oven playing the maracas that builds up into a dance beat.    Idealism just jumps out of this song with its ooh-la las and woo!  Then the song fades like a slowing handcranked record player.

“Livin’ Thing”  A sort of gypsy violin introduces this one.  Lynn sings about being in love, but also how he’s taking a dive, and soon the song focuses more on the dive than the love.  (It’s interesting how the back up singers at times seem to be commenting on this “don’t you do it, don’t you do it.” )  The theme of climbing high and inevitably falling comes to a peak here.  It’s funny how in this album things seem happy, but sad behind it, or sad but beautiful.

“Above the Clouds” More climbing themed lyrics to a sort of space doo-wop with a vibratophone.  This song is extremely short,but the lyrics   “It’s like a mountain side, You’ve got to climb it to the top, Floating in a sea of dreams, The only thing that you can see, Is the view above the clouds.”  There’s a struggle with finding significance after getting some of the things you want.  It’s the difference between being really young and having nothing yet but the future, and a little older and having some stuff and losing the purity of your vision.

“Do Ya” is the hardest rocking song here.  Basically talking to a woman about how he’s seen everything but she is the best thing he’s ever seen.  It’s funny how this song feels a little tacked on in a way, sort of like how Lynne couldn’t really make a song about the struggle in finding significance and not have the answer being love from some woman.  I believe that tacked on bit is on purpose, because this is basically a blind alley for him.

“Shangri-La”  Follow up “Do Ya” and closes the album with a sort of symphonic lullaby, about how love has gone away.   He talks about getting out of love and waiting again for something to give meaning.  It’s not completely sad, but just another set of emotions that drift away as quickly as they started.

We return to the symphonic theme at the beginning with Jeff Lynne’s voice sort of echoing underneath the symphony and choir saying he will return to “Shangri-La.”    It really sounds like he is getting lost in all the noise around him.

What makes this album really pop besides the incredible production, is how tight it is in every way.  All the songs are really short, the symphonic bits are alluded throughout the whole album (and seem to represent the greater cosmos, and how small an individual can be it.)  Themes come back again and again both in sound and in lyrics: the line–being both a connection with others, and also a distancing mechanism, climbing and falling, sort of like icarus, not being able to see.  The tone is one of longing, but the sort of longing for something different, something to give some purpose, it’s the sort of longing a person could have if they first had a goal to succeed at something, but succeeding isn’t enough anymore.  Also of waiting, as if this album was made when Jeff Lynn was waiting for something to capture his interest.

Honestly, I could listen to this cycle on loop (and I really hate the expanded editions of the album that don’t let you do this).  I have yet to find a more perfect peon to disenchantment and yearning, and in my opinion E.L.O. never topped themselves after this album.

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